Why My Heart is Torn Between Russian Orthodoxy and Pussy Riot

02/21/2014 04:01 pm ET | Updated Apr 23, 2014


A few months ago, one of the scowls at First Things wrote a post making fun of emergenty evangelicals like me for dabbling in the theology and sacred ambiance of high church traditions like Orthodoxy and Catholicism without being willing to submit to the hierarchy. Whether it's inconsistent and incoherent and irrational, there's something that causes Christians like me to have one foot in the Occupy camp and one foot in the cathedrals that enchant us. Two images have grabbed my heart over the past few weeks: when the Russian Orthodox monks stood praying and risking martyrdom between the cops and the protesters in Kiev, Ukraine, and when the anarchist girl punk band Pussy Riot got whipped by Cossacks for recording a punk video in Sochi this week. Half of my heart belongs to Russian Orthodoxy and half belongs to Pussy Riot; it's just the kind of Christian that I am.

I have been enchanted by Russian Orthodox theology ever since I was exposed to it. There are few books that have influenced me more than Alexander Schmemann's For the Life of the World. Schmemann explains that Christianity is not about despising physical existence, but about enjoying it the most perfectly by recognizing the sacramental beauty of the objects in the world:

We were created as celebrants of the sacrament of life, of its transformation into life in God, communion with God. We know that real life is 'eucharist,' a movement of love and adoration toward God, the movement in which alone the meaning and the value of all that exists can be revealed and fulfilled. [34]

Eucharist is not just a ritual we go through in church on the first Sundays of the month. It is what we were created to do. Eucharisto means thanksgiving. When we live eucharistically, it means that we savor every physical object in our universe as the loving gift of our creator. A life of thanksgiving is a life that we enjoy perfectly because we feel smothered by the love of God as we eat and drink his gifts. Eating and drinking from Christ's holy table is supposed to make us savor existence. When we live in that state of pure worship, it organically translates into love for our neighbors; every injustice in our world has some form of idolatry at its core.

In a life of idolatry, we don't really enjoy ourselves when we consume the fetishized objects that imprison us; often our consumption itself is part of a script that we don't realize we've been tricked into obeying. Schmemann writes: "When we see the world as an end in itself, everything becomes itself a value and consequently loses all value because only in God is found the meaning (value) of everything, and the world is meaningful only when it is the 'sacrament' of God's presence" (17). The capitalist market assigns value to life in a manner diametrically opposite to Christ's table. It causes us to value objects extrinsically as commodities instead of intrinsically as sacraments. Schmemann was the one who brought what is perhaps the most important contrast of the 21st century into focus for me.

So how did the same religion that produced Schmemann also produce Putin or for that matter Stalin? You might say it's unfair to throw Stalin's name in there, but the Soviet expression of Marxism is shaped by the same "Father knows best" paternalism that has defined the country of czars for centuries. Perhaps the most socially defining characteristic of Russian Orthodoxy is the concept of the spiritual father. My parents bought me a fantastic book for Christmas called Everyday Saints written by the Orthodox monk, Archimandrite Tikhon Shevkunov. The bestselling book in Russia in 2012, it relates everyday stories in the life of Russian orthodox culture. What I read over and over again was the way that devout Russian Orthodox ask their priests for advice about everything.

One of the featured protagonists of the book was a famous mystic monk named Father John Krestiankin, who actually has his own popular book of letters of advice that he wrote to thousands of Russians including Putin himself who had asked him for God's will about specific concrete decisions they had to make. He was considered to have a unique charismatic gift of discernment, grounded in his radically prayerful ascetic lifestyle. The Everyday Saints book documents how people who didn't follow Father John's divinely inspired insight fell into disaster, including one woman who died on the operating table during a routine surgery that Father John had begged her not to follow through with.

Two years ago, I discovered this culture of spiritual fatherhood when I tried to get an Eastern Orthodox spiritual director (an admittedly bourgeois "liberal" Protestant concept often indulged in by people who seek similar "direction" from their yoga instructor). The two priests whom I contacted were very puzzled by my request. They basically said that they were happy to help me "explore" Orthodoxy and speak to the formerly Protestant "converts" in their congregation, but it was clear that they saw the purpose of spiritual direction as helping me decide to abandon my own journey of ordained ministry as a United Methodist and become one of their spiritual children.

Nothing is more repugnant in Orthodox circles than the concept of ecumenism; it's almost worse to be ecumenical than it is to be liberal. Granted, a lot of what they hate about Protestantism is very legitimate. We turned the centerpiece of their beautiful eucharistic liturgy into a casual, clattering mass distribution of grape juice shots and crackers which some companies even sell in the same single serving package for convenience. Instead of savoring the inarticulable beautiful mysteries of God by ordering our days with liturgy, we devour exhaustive systematic theology books in order to gain intellectual sovereignty over every square inch of God's "sovereign" nature so that we can spend most of our waking moments in theological swordplay on the Internet. We turned prayer, the means of becoming God's breath, into a means of testing and proving how hard we can make ourselves believe (in the power of our own words) by trying to snag some miracles from God.

And yet, I'm a Protestant. As much as I hate its individualism, I'm still on an individual journey. I worship every week at a Catholic mass even though I lead worship every week at a Methodist contemporary worship service. I pray in ancient words, but I have the audacity to think that I don't need John Chrysostom and Basil's words, because God has led me to build my own prayers in Hebrew and Greek from verses that God has spoken into my journey. Furthermore, I would consider it a betrayal of the journey which God has given me and what he has taught me through the people he put into my life to simply submit to whatever my church votes into doctrine about issues like homosexuality instead of living out the vocation to wrestle my way to the truth inside the underlying issues of Biblical teaching.

One of the most important foundations of my Christianity was my experience being bullied in late elementary and middle school. I have always self-identified as an outsider (whether or not identity politics allow me to be as a middle-upper class straight white guy). I am attracted to the outsiders, and I have the audacity to say that Christianity is supposed to be religion of outsiders, even though Christianity has spent most of its two millennia developing a triumphalist tradition post-Constantine in which it has catered to czars and emperors and had its theology shaped almost exclusively by social insiders, whose infallibility is acclaimed by the insiders of today. When I see Jesus say "Take up your cross and follow me" (Mark 8:34) to a group of people who could only understand a cross as the most brutal, dehumanizing object in the Roman Empire, he's not talking about spiritual discipline; he's talking about utterly your renouncing social status by becoming a despised one (c.f. 1 Corinthians 1:28), homo sacer , a proletarian.

So when the women of Pussy Riot stand up for the people who don't fit into their "Father Putin knows best" paternalistic society, they're expressing a side of Jesus that has been lost to the Russian church. As much as I grimace at the thought of disrespecting the beautiful sanctified space of a cathedral (in a protest song which sent them to prison for two years), it was right for them to call out Russian Orthodox officials for their fawning praise of Putin's slide toward dictatorship. They are not rebels without a cause. They have a very precise understanding of what they are doing, as expressed in Pussy Riot member Nadia Tolokonnikova's letters from prison to radical theorist Slavoj Zizek:

We are a part of this force that has no final answers or absolute truths, for our mission is to question. There are architects of apollonian statics and there are (punk) singers of dynamics and transformation. One is not better than the other. But it is only together that we can ensure the world functions in the way Heraclitus defined it: "This world has been and will eternally be living on the rhythm of fire, inflaming according to the measure, and dying away according to the measure. This is the functioning of the eternal world breath."

Heraclitus? WHAT?!! (She's not typing this on her wifi laptop in an academic library, but hand-writing quotes of ancient philosophers from memory in a cold Siberian prison). And is this not the other side of the same vision that Schmemann has? I hear Jesus talking about the same "eternal world breath" when he says, "The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit" (John 3:8). How does the liberated wind that Jesus speaks of look anything like a church that considers change itself to be a sin? A church that hates people whose crime is their complication of anthropological categories?

Most people in Russia hate Nadia and Pussy Riot. They are extremely unpopular in opinion polls. They represent the infiltration of our disgusting Western culture that I hate no less than Russians do. (Some actually accuse them of being CIA agents!) I honestly think that what most Russians hate about feminism, homosexuality, and even basic concepts of democracy like freedom of speech is that it all looks like Miley Cyrus's wrecking ball to them. But Nadia is no trashy Western hedonist. This is what she tells Zizek about her prison experience which wasn't quite like the old GULAG, but was still physically brutal:

You should not worry that you are exposing theoretical fabrications while I am supposed to suffer the "real hardship." I value the strict limits, and the challenge. I am genuinely curious: how will I cope with this? And how can I turn this into a productive experience for me and my comrades? I find sources of inspiration; it contributes to my own development.

In other words, she interprets the hardships of prison ascetically, like a Russian Orthodox monk would. It may be outrageous of me to say this, but I think Nadia Tolokonnikova and Pussy Riot are one of God's most important gifts to the Russian Orthodox Church right now. Even if the scowls at First Things will sneer at me for my inconsistency, I will persist in my unsubmissive Protestant priesthood of the believer, holding in one side of my heart the liberated eternal world breath of the balaclavaed anarchists from Pussy Riot, while in the other side, I feast on the beautiful eucharistic vision of Alexander Schmemann.

And if you ask me how I can do this, my answer will probably be incomprehensible to you: it's because I fear the God whose ancient truths are also always new since the church has ever conquered them. Jesus said, "Do not call anyone on earth 'father,' for you have one Father, and he is in heaven" (Matthew 23:9). I dare not submit to any Father less than He.